Life in the Ashes of Lotusland Dreams

The Kincade Wildfire, currently burning in Sonoma County, California erupted at 9:24 PM on October 23 during an extreme wind event, east of Geyserville (77 miles or 124 km north of San Francisco). An area of 400 acres (2 square kilometers, 2 km^2) burned that evening. By October 30 the fire had burned an area of 76,825 acres (311 km^2), and was only 30% contained. The daily progress of the Kincade Fire is charted in the following figure.

“The cause of the fire has not yet been confirmed by a formal investigation, but a compulsory report shows that the fire started when a 230,000 volt transmission line failed near the point of origin, just before power was about to be shut off in the area” [1] as a precaution against anticipated high winds causing electrical lines and tree branches swinging into each other and sparking a wildfire in the parched hilly landscape.

During October 23 and 24, PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric Company] carried out a massive power shut-off to nearly 940,000 customers in Northern California, this included a swathe of territory at the higher elevations of the Berkeley Hills (the low mountains behind the cities on the east side of San Francisco Bay). My home, in Oakland, was in this blackout. The winds died down on October 25, and my power was restored for a day; but this was not so in the blacked-out areas of Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties (and possibly also Marin County, and numerous counties further north). Another extreme wind event was anticipated for October 26 and 27, so PG&E began shutting off power in an attempt to prevent additional fires, leaving an estimated three million people (2.5 to 2.8 million) without power.

A 102 mph (164 kph) wind gust was recorded at Pine Flat at 3,300 feet (1000 meters) elevation, at 8 AM on October 27. A National Weather Service forecaster noted the wind speed on Twitter and shared that sustained winds had also “officially broke Hurricane Force (78 mph, or 126 kph).” [2] From the chart above, you can see how the area covered by the Kincade Fire expanded during these gusty conditions, between October 26 and October 28.

There were and are many severe wildfires raging in California north and south during this time (the Getty Fire in Los Angeles being one); the Kincade Fire is merely the largest current wildfire in the state. The Kincade Fire threatened over 90,000 structures (by October 30, 189 have been destroyed) and has caused widespread evacuations throughout Sonoma County, including the communities of Geyserville, Healdsburg, and Windsor. The majority of Sonoma County and parts of Lake County are under evacuation warnings.

There are 4,900 firefighters trying to contain and extinguish the Kincade Fire alone. Some of these firefighters are prisoners. “These are the people we write off, don’t allow to vote, don’t allow to become firemen once released” [3]; “people who are paid unconscionably low wages” for helping to keep so many of us safe. [4]

By October 28, power had been restored in my section of Oakland; it still remains off in most of the blacked-out territory in the northern counties (October 30), but I believe it is now slowly being restored in areas released from evacuation warnings.

Cal Fire (the state agency dealing with wildfires) put out 300 fires between the 28th and 29th, and more than 650 fires since the 27th. Smoke will linger in the San Francisco Bay Area atmosphere for days, no rain is forecast and temperatures are predicted to drop to near freezing in some areas; and the winds are expected to die down after October 30. The Kincade Fire is expected to be 100% contained by November 7, 2019. Most Sonoma County school districts will remain closed through November 1, and many schools in Marin County were closed as of the 30th. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs in California demanded that Governor Gavin Newsom find a way to restore power to the numerous VA clinics that do not have backup power equipment. [5]

A Sonoma County man who used an oxygen ventilator to assist his breathing was reported to have died shortly after the electric power was cut to his home. [6] The power cuts and evacuations were very hard on people who are frail, infirmed or who require powered medical devices to assist and sustain them. The authorities had established evacuation centers to include the medically needy, but it seems not all of them made it to safety.

PG&E reported that 1.2 million people, in 28 California counties, have been without power since October 26. The process of restoring power can take 48 hours, and PG&E expressed the hope of beginning that process early on the 30th. [5]

There have been many calls now — as newspaper editorials, letters-to-the-editor, comments on social media, angry voices in the streets, and conversations through sporadic telephone connections between cold blacked-out homes — for the State of California to take over PG&E and run it as a publicly owned electric and gas utility.

Besides losing lights, reliable refrigeration (for food and medicine storage), the use of: electrically powered medical devices, electric cooking devices, wall-plugged electronics, recharging capability for battery-powered electronics and cellular telephones; many homes in more rural areas lost water because their local water company (or their own well) relies entirely on PG&E electricity to run the water pumps. It is no fun to not be able to flush in a blacked-out house for a week, unless you can find a way to haul in water. Running a gasoline-powered generator helps (if you have one, along with safe heavy-duty extension cords to run into the house), but this must be carefully done so as to avoid introducing carbon-monoxide fumes into the home (you’re stuck with the motor noise), and not cause a fire during your handling of the gasoline (which you must repeatedly travel to purchase) when replenishing the tank of the generator unit.

The losses of lives, property and homes to fire were the greatest tragedies that people suffered, and the large-scale evacuations and blacked-out sheltering-in-place were the most widespread hardships. But economic damage spread further in the form of lost wages by many lower-income workers in small businesses that were closed due to lack of power, and for restaurants the added impact of foodstuffs lost to spoilage with the loss of refrigeration. Large food supermarkets near me brought in self-contained refrigeration tractor-trailers to store perishable foods, or motor-generators to power the refrigerators in the stores. Either way, gasoline or diesel fuel was being burned (and exhaust gases emitted) locally to replace the missing PG&E electricity needed for refrigeration.

Nearby restaurants that were not in black-out zones were crowded through the week with us hungry refugees from the black-out; and our rate of expenditure for eating necessarily increased. Many of us refugees would also seek out electrical outlets at these restaurants and coffee houses, to recharge our cell phones and portable computers. I like to read books at night, and this became impossible without the use of some battery-powered light (and battery depletion would be a problem), or, more risky, with the use of candles.

The anxiety about lack of electrical power, and the uncertainty about when it would be restored was for so many otherwise prosperous and bountifully endowed Californians the visceral experience of a very noticeable decay of “the American way of life.” This was a sensible punch-in-the-gut by climate change (global warming, drought, wildfire) and not just climate change as an insubstantial verbal construct, an abstraction, a slogan. This was also an unpleasant visceral hint of what a descent into Third World living might be like, for a significant population of Americans (in California) who would otherwise unthinkingly continue with perhaps the most privileged lifestyles experienced by any mass population on Earth.

Some appreciation of the scope of the Kincade Fire can be gained by viewing the photo taken of it from by space by US astronaut Andrew Morgan. [7]

The Kincade Fire is the plume on the right, wafting toward the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco Bay occupies the left half of the image just below the coastline. The view from bottom to top is from east to west.

Another view of the Kincade Fire burn area is given by a 6 minute video recorded during a fly-over on October 29 by the Henry 1 helicopter of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. It looks like a film clip of a US chopper flying over the burnt and blasted jungle hills of Vietnam 50 years ago (with a touch more suburban development) but without the sight and sound of explosions. (https://www.facebook.com/sonoma.sheriff/videos/1163763990678292/) [8]

“The wildfire season in the American West is now two and half months longer than 40 years ago. Wildfires are now four times more common and burn six times as much forest area. Some of today’s fires are so big and hot they burn the soil itself, and when that happens it can take up to a thousand years for the trees to grow back. By 2050 wildfires in the United States will be twice as destructive as they are now and each year will burn 20 million acres. An estimated 339,000 people die each year from smoke from wildfires. By 2050 we are expected to lose half of all the forests in the American West.” [9]

It seems that by November 1 the Kincade Fire and other smaller blazes in Northern California will be nearing full containment and total extinction, most evacuees will have returned to their homes — if they still have them — and those homes will regain electrical power, and the many workers temporarily put out of their wage-earning jobs because of the black-outs will once again be employed. But it could all happen again with the onset of another period of extreme wind during this dry season (please rain soon! but then we will have flooding and landslides because of the loss of soil-holding vegetation). And what of the dry seasons in the years to come?

Undoubtedly there will be swift recriminations, lawsuits, fights with insurance companies (and rate increases), political posturing and even perhaps useful actions in the California legislature and by the Governor’s office. With luck the political system of the State of California will swiftly develop new plans that are immediately put into action to devise strategies and infrastructure to better prevent the outbreak of such rapidly expanding wildfires, and reduce (ideally eliminate) the necessity of having widespread electrical power shut-offs during the highly windy days of our (global warming lengthening) fire season.

For an increasing number of Californians, the 20th century illusions about “the American way of life” have been lost in the dark of de-electrified homes with shut-off water, and gone up in the smoke of raging wildfires that extend to the horizons.

Notes

[1] Kincade Fire (30 October 2019)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kincade_Fire

[2] SFGATE (a Facebook web-page of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper)

[3] David Menschel, @davidminpdx

[4] Bay Area For Bernie (Facebook group)

[5] The San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, October 30, 2019

[6] Santa Rosa Press Democrat, October 24-27, 2019

[7] Kincade Fire from space, photo by Andrew Morgan
https://sfist.com/2019/10/30/heres-what-the-kincade-fire-looks-like-from-space/

[8] Kincade Fire, Henry 1 Fly Over (10/29 1:00pm)
Sonoma Sheriff
https://www.facebook.com/sonoma.sheriff/videos/1163763990678292/

[9] Climate Facts: Wildfire Season
11 October 2017
https://www.facebook.com/senatorsanders/videos/1511664332253953/

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Kincade Fire, FINAL, 6 November 2019, 7:00 PM
https://www.fire.ca.gov/media/10083/kincade-incident-update-11062019-pm.pdf

Sonoma County
active 14 days:
start -> 23 October 2019, 9:27 PM
cause: under investigation
77,758 Acres, vegetation
100% contained
374 structures destroyed
60 structures damaged
4 injuries (first responders only)

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